Interview with Bill Morrison

Dawson City: Frozen Time, the latest film from renowned American director Bill Morrison, is a complex, poetic, multi-stranded tale featuring the fortuitous discovery of buried nitrate film stock. The telling of this story reveals the fortunes of gold-rush town and the development of early cinema.

Bill came to the Cambridge Film Festival in 2017 to present his film and take part in a Q&A. He also generously agreed to give this special in-depth interview in which he discusses his distinguished career, including the making of his magical film Decasia, and how he came to make his latest feature Dawson City: Frozen Time.

An extract of this interview was originally broadcast on the Cambridge 105 radio show: Bums on Seats. A podcast of the programme can be found here.

Mike O’Brien: Welcome to the Cambridge Film Festival.

Bill Morrison: Thanks so much.

MOB: How did you get into filmmaking?

BM: I guess I was always interested in films. As a boy they were always around me: I grew up near the campus of the University of Chicago, which had a repertory arts cinema I could sneak into, and there was the neighbourhood theatre, and an occasional trip downtown to see the big blockbusters.

I was certainly always interested in the soundtrack and how the music worked with the image. For some reason it always captured my imagination.

I considered myself a painter – I guess at that age I would have considered myself a cartoonist. Eventually I attended art school with a painting scholarship. Within the first year I met the great animator Robert Breer, who was one of my film professors. He also came out of painting and sculpture and really espoused the idea of film as a collection of images. I had this sense that with a film you could capture many emotions and many angles of a moment – with a captive audience, a soundtrack, and so on – that would be difficult to do with a painting. It just seemed that I could address some of the issues that were most meaningful to me through the moving image.

So it was a slow evolution. I graduated from art college as a painter. I was also making films – I guess I would spend 6 weeks making a film and then 6 weeks making a painting, going back and forth. Soon after leaving art school I fell in with a theatre company that actually used films as part of their backdrop. They became my home. Through this company and the theatre world I was introduced to some of the great contemporary classical composers of our time…all through the lucky happenstance of being in downtown New York at the right time.

MOB: Do you still paint?

BM: Sort of, on vacation; I don’t make it a part of my daily practice unfortunately. For instance, when we visited Dawson City for a film festival earlier this year, I was able to knock out a painting while I was there, so that was fun. I’d say that once a year I do a painting I’m proud of, and one or two I like, usually watercolour these days.

MOB: Did working with the theatre lead you into a particular style of filmmaking?

BM: I suppose it did. First of all, budgets were nil [laughs], so I was necessarily looking for footage which was in the public domain, and I quickly stumbled upon the early cinema, because it was all grandfathered-in, if you will, beyond any usage rates. Regarding that as my safe zone, especially the primitive cinema that had been saved on paper originally and then re-animated some decades later. I also found that it was much like the type of animation I had studied at school, which was this sort of plastic segway between painting and photography and motions pictures. When I was at art school I would shoot some motion picture negative and set it up on two rewind reels in the darkroom and print successive photographs and re-animate those photographs. So early cinema was a primitive cinema collection that was organically this already, it had been saved as paper rolls for copyright purposes and then decades later re-animated to return it to film. But of course, in the process it had picked up the grain of the paper and some of the aging. That was some of my first experience of working with aged film or film that had clearly lived in this world and wasn’t just a clean product of the black box.

Then I started distressing film myself, like putting what we call drain-oil on it, and I purchased an optical printer – which is a device which re-photographs frame by frame – so you can slow films down or skip frames and make it go faster or have two images together. I was playing around by putting this very corrosive liquid onto the emulsion and then with some dental tools, or whatever, picking at the emulsion and incrementally changing it, throwing the whole heap in the bathtub and the next day it was just a puddle [laughs]. It deteriorated completely, but luckily I had photographed it frame by frame while it was still extant…

There was a film in the early ‘90s, Lyrical Nitrate by Peter Delpeut, where he pulled together a whole bunch of films which had been found in an old theatre in the Netherlands and really did the due diligence, researching what the titles were and what their provenance was… It was kind of an arthouse hit. For me, there was this wonderful moment at the end of the film where it’s a depiction of the garden of Eden and Eve gives Adam an apple and the emulsion goes crazy! It was the first time I’d really seen how organically, accidentally the image had seemingly reacted to what it was depicting. This is just an incredible example of a phenomenon that if you look hard enough happens over and over again.

Not too long after that, my collaborators and I in the theatre company had been asked to create some sort of visual element that would accompany a symphony by Michael Gordon which had not yet been written. For want of a title we were calling it Fantasia, but we were eager not to call it that for very much longer [laughs]… And I was invited to show The Film of Her, a short of mine profiling the paper print collection I just mentioned, in some ways a shorter version of Dawson City because I was using this primitive collection to tell its own story…

I was showing The Film of Her at a conference for archival academics and scholars and other artists in the University of South Carolina and I remembered that they had a newsreel collection – sort of the outtakes of the Fox Movietone newsreels, and just by searching through I noticed that some of the more deteriorated titles were earmarked as ‘emulsion deteriorations’, so I made that my keyword search and hundreds if not thousands of titles came up. Then I noticed that some of those were described as ‘severe emulsion deterioration’ so I put ‘severe’ as a modifier to my search and I had a manageable number of 155 titles or so, which I could start picking my way through. By the end of that weekend I had what became the key visual elements of Decasia. I returned back to New York to describe what I’d found to my collaborators and also to suggest that nascent project be about deterioration, not just visually but also musically. Everybody agreed with that. I also suggested that instead of calling it Fantasia we could call it Decasia. First it was a joke, this made-up name, but then we all liked the idea and the project became known as that.

MOB: For people who don’t know Decasia, it’s a long-form poetic film, not narrative driven –

BM: [laughs] Nothing if not poetic…

MOB: [laughs] Yes! There’s a wonderful example of what what you talk about, the image of a boxer –

BM: – That’s in fact one of the images I found on that first weekend, maybe the first image I found –

MOB: The punchbag the boxer is using has deteriorated more than the rest of the image. So he looks as if he’s punching this phantasmic substance –

BM: [laughs] Yes, he’s trying to punch-out the amorphic blog. There was something so heroic and also tragic about that sequence – how could he ever beat that blob? – but he was going to die trying. That image in and of itself became the key image of the film, and it captured what I wanted; I wanted it to be beautiful and tragic but I also wanted it to be funny and talk about our own futility as mortals… There’s only so much we can achieve in our limited lifetimes, we’re only alive for a short amount of time, but of course in our minds that’s all we’ve got, that’s the entirety of our existence.

MOB: Of course, the other key element in the film, and one which has always been key in your work, is your collaboration with a musician. In this case it was Michael Gordon from the Bang On The Can collective. Are they based in New York?

BM: They are. Michael Gordon, his wife Julia Wolfe, and David Lang set-up the collective. They are really the second generation coming out of the one Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Gavin Bryars were part of. Gordon, Wolfe, and Lang came out of Yale together and were really interested in the model used by the Kronos Quartet, that there be a collective of composers, that they support musicians who could play their music. I think the Bang on the Can collective are celebrating 30 years this week. They started with long-form marathons that featured different composers and had a quintet called the Bang On A Can Allstars made up of musicians on hand, but that instrumentation became what people would write for. They in some ways really unified what was known as uptown classical music of the Carnegie Hall / Lincoln Centre scene, which had been unchanged for years, and the downtown scene which was coming out of minimalism, and of course the loft scene; and they joined these things together so that they are virtually indistinguishable today. No one talks about uptown and downtown classical music anymore. In New York it’s known as New Music and elsewhere it might be called New Classical music.

Anyway, Michael is one of the figureheads of the collective and of that whole community, and Decasia was an important work for him. The project really came through him – he was commissioned to write a symphonic, orchestral piece for the first time. It was an important milestone for him, and for all of us it was the change of the millennium and we were thinking big thoughts and we wanted to make a piece that was representative of that time.

MOB: Had he finished the piece so that you could cut your film to it?

BM: Michael wrote on what to me sounded like a Casio keyboard, this sort of midi mock-up where no effort at all had been taken to modulate the different instrument sounds. So what he gave to me just sounded god-awful, just this sort of clamorous, monotone piece. I did cut the movements of the film to that, but it wasn’t until we went to premiere it – this would have been November of 2001 – that I heard actual musicians playing actual instruments and I understood the music. We recorded it there – which is still the recording we hear today on the film – and I recut to that, always knowing that the premiere was not the final cut. For one thing, we were showing it from a 35mm work print that had been reduced to three 16mm work prints that were projecting from different corners of the performance space. The musicians were positioned all around the audience, the audience was in the centre of this room, a room that was basically constructed from scaffolding from which screens hung, so that you were looking through the projected image at the musicians behind. And we always understood that the edit would be environmental, at best… and freeform – all three 16mm projectors ran at varying speeds – so nothing remained in sync. From the recording we were able to go back to the 35mm negative and cut something that had a more coherent editorial narrative.

But that’s the way I’ve primarily worked throughout my career, in tandem with composers, oftentimes beginning a project with them, and most of the time the narrative. Music doesn’t lend itself to literary narrative in a straightforward way, and a lot of time that came from whatever discovery I would make in the archive, for instance finding a boxer punching a blob, and that would become the starting point. But I would always find different images while I was hunting for something else, and that would remain in the sock-drawer. My relationship with the composer is that I’ll be showing them what I’m looking at and hopefully they’re playing me tracks that they’re writing. Though with Michael I heard a little bit and then he delivered the whole thing and it hasn’t changed since then. It’s very different, though, working with classical composers who notate everything than it is, for instance, working with improvisational jazz musicians.

MOB: On Dawson City: Frozen Time you worked with Alex Somers, who has produced Sigur Rós and others. How did that collaboration work?

BM: That was quite different than my previous ones. It was more in the tradition of how a director and a soundtrack composer work together. I delivered him something with a scratch track and that was removed and he started with essentially a silent film that he was scoring from the ground up. The scratch track used something that he and his partner Jónsi, who’s the lead singer of Sigur Rós, had recorded. They recorded three tracks for me at the very beginning of the process – probably 20 minutes of music, I think they just knocked that out in one weekend. I kept hoping that there would be more tracks forthcoming but there weren’t, so I eventually used a 2009 release of theirs, the only release of theirs as a pair, Jónsi & Alex’s ‘Riceboy Sleeps’, a very ethereal, evocative record, and really the film was cut between the three tracks they provided and the CD. I worked my way through the film and when I ran out of music I just started with the three tracks again. So, I provided that to Alex and for the most part he removed everything, though the final crescendo I really thought worked with one of those three tracks, so he left that in, in a different instrumentation.

Working with him was great – we weren’t together, he was in Reykjavik, I was in New York. It was two years after we first met that I was able to provide him with a rough cut. This would have been probably a year and a half ago, April of 2016, and then he came back with something, some of which was great and some of which didn’t work at all. So I explicitly went through all the cues and said no, no, no, yes, yes, yes… We talked about the yeses and it became a way for me to articulate what I thought the film was about and the mood that it should have, what I was trying to convey.

Those conversations with Alex became really instrumental in how I describe the film from thereafter. One thing I was quite clear about is that I had made a tragedy, the tragedy of capitalism if you will. I remember in some email, tied in with that discussion, that we both realised we needed more cellos [laughs].

MOB: How did you get to hear about the story behind Dawson City: Frozen Time – that discovery of a collection of silent films in an old swimming pool in the arctic – and what inspired you to make the film?

BM: As I mentioned, I had made a film 25 years ago, The Film of Her, which also endeavours to tell the story of an arcane collection, using the bits of that collection. So I think it was already part of my psychic makeup to use collage film, and maybe coming out of my experience as a painter to explicitly reference the plastic medium, the paint on the canvas, the film in the film. Artistically, it’s very in keeping with the way that I’ve worked throughout my life.

The story of the discovery was so phenomenal, in some ways I think it has eclipsed the actual content of the collection. People who know the story are quite content to recount the time when all these films were pulled out of the swimming pool in the Yukon village, and no one really talks about what was found in there. When I first heard about it, I was either still in art school or just recently graduated, it was a story that people who were interested in archival film, as I was and am, told each other. It was sort of a popular myth. People were starting to get it wrong, things were getting messed up – the most common mistake you hear is that it was in Alaska; I heard one person say it was underneath a bowling alley. It was only written about definitively in two essays which are by the same guy and virtually identical. No film was made about it and there’s been no scholarly research. This story, I guess, had been passed around probably since it was a news story and then, as stories do, it had died out. I knew the story quite well – as did most people my age or older who were in the archival film world – but nobody younger than me had ever heard of it and most people outside the archival film world hadn’t heard of it. In a sense it was a brand new story to the rest of the world, which was astonishing to me, I thought it was well known. It just goes to show you how insular my world is [laughs].

In 2013 I was invited to show Decasia and some other films in Ottawa and the programmer, Paul Gordon, said you should come and visit me in my day job and we could collaborate together – I do digital migration for Library and Archives Canada, you should take a look at our collection. I said, well don’t you have Dawson City? He said, of course we do – all the original Canadian content that was buried in Dawson City as well as a safety copy of the entire collection. Not only that, but we are getting a new 4k scanner installed next year. So a light bulb went off, and I thought this is my moment, I can make the Dawson City film. Paul became a vital collaborator on the project because he also knew where a lot of other archival stuff was buried within that collection and also could direct me to the Yukon archives where I found more. From there I also went to the Dawson Archives and my regular sources at the University of South Carolina and the Library of Congress, and then of course there is a whole photographic archive element which involved other archives.

MOB:The film has many layers, different stories – about the development of cinema itself and about social, political, and economic changes. How did you come to this tell this story in this way?

BM: Dawson City was in many ways a test-tube town. As they liked to say up there it was a town with no history and no future. This was a town that grew up in the tradition of an American town even though it was way off in the boonies in the Yukon, on Canadian soil in indigenous peoples’ land. It was only the sheer happenstance that gold was found there that a town was quickly constructed to exploit the find. In a way you see a condensed version of America, or you could even expand it as western civilisation, within this short timespan of a few decades. The rise and fall was meteoric: it flared up very fast and died out slower but just as inevitably. Approaching this story, I understood the extraordinary coincidence that the gold strike happened in 1896, which can be argued as being the same time as the beginning of commercial cinema. Using these two linked moments in history it wasn’t too much of a stretch  to show that as the town developed and as cinema developed, at some point – not too many decades in – the two would intersect; and to show cinema as part of the colonisation of that town – how people learned things, how they saw the rest of the world; and cinema as a byproduct of western expansion, as the entertainment that would get you through the long winter, but also as the homogenising force that will speak to you as part of a global community.

There were many issues that came up. I had this structure in mind and it wasn’t until I understood what the collection actually held that I could approach some of the social issues. The story of Dawson City is a story of how the white man came in and took the native property and moved them down river, and how the common, wild-eyed gold panner was replaced by the Guggenheims and corporate and mechanised labour, how the town became a company town, and then eventually that company pulled up its tent poles, and what was left was tumbleweed. The town had died a long and slow death through most of the century – it’s been many years since it was a booming town, though as a tourist destination it is a wonderful place to visit in the summer to this day.

MOB: You described the film at the beginning as a tragedy, but you are left with hope, because due to unbelievable chance these many films of the silent era were found and recovered and are now there for people to see again.

BM: Yeah, this is the silver lining if you will of the gold strike! There were 372 different titles on 500 plus reels…  I really found value in the newsreels, which were small stories, five or six within a single reel. The features suffered the most because there was no complete consecutive reel one through eight that survived. There was a bunch of serials, these programs that would appear from week to week and they were incomplete, and the features were incomplete… The newsreels and the one-reelers, which were for the most part bad comedies, were the only things which were really intact.

Looking at this footage from our perspective today – I started on this project in 2013, today it’s 2017 – this is a hundred years ago, every parade is a centennial. There was a remarkable piece of footage that I really had to work into the film, for how it rhymed with today’s news, the silent parade of African Americans marching down 5th avenue, protesting about violence elsewhere in the country. During the edit of this film it was also a violent time, with a number of young black American men being murdered and no charges were being pressed. So, to have the centennial of that parade was, I thought, very haunting. Yes, in some ways we’ve progressed, certainly in becoming more politic in how we describe people different than us in our newsreels, but has the sentiment behind it really changed that much…

MOB: That parade is a good example of the poetry that emerges from the film – such a moving snippet that’s woven into this highly complicated story. All these different strands, somehow they work together as a combined narrative. When did you know that you had the complete film, the finished narrative?

BM: It was a lot like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I had certain key pieces, the corners and edges which you go after when you’re trying to complete a puzzle, but I was also missing key pieces that I’d left as placeholders hoping that they would come together. For instance, I always theorised that the reason these films were expendable was because the talkies came in – it seemed the logical reason and it had happened elsewhere. But I didn’t have the smoking gun. It wasn’t until very late that I found a couple of relevant articles in the Dawson Daily News. So that’s one example.

I guess the most crucial story that I always hoped could be fleshed out was concerning the discovery of the Eric Hegg photographs. In Ethel Anderson Becker’s collection of Hegg photographs, in the forward, it talks about the woman who discovers the glass plate negatives in her cabin and asked her boss the best way to remove the emulsion so that she can make a greenhouse out of them! It seemed like a joke. It was repeated by Colin Low – the director of City of Gold, a short, much heralded film, 1957, which is featured prominently in my film – on the National Film Board of Canada’s website he talks about a woman who found these glass plate negatives which inspired his film. Neither of these sources named who this woman was, what year it was, who the boss was, what the place of business or her employment was, how the glass plate negatives then made it to Ottawa, that was all unexplained. Kathy Gates, a protagonist in the film and former director of the Dawson Museum, she and I became great late night penpals – she was in the Yukon and I was in New York –  we would write each other different questions and share excitement for the film project. One thing I asked her rather late in the summer, this was leading up to its premiere in September, was about these two different published accounts of the story, one says it’s 2000 glass plates and one says it’s 200, asking her what’s the deal with this? I can’t use it in my film, where I’m identifying everybody by name and the year something happened, as some sort of vague, somebody somewhere found this, it just won’t work in my film. She said, well I don’t know but there’s an old gal in town who might know, let me give her a call. She calls up Irene Crayford who says “Oh yeah, that was me, I found those glass plates”. Then all of a sudden we had the date she was married and the photographs and the boss’s name and the place that she worked and where the plates ended up… It really was a crucial link to that story, and one that also echoed with the film find, of course, the photographic find and the film find – the Hegg story was a crucial part of the development of Dawson City, it was his photographs that first publicised, visually, the gold rush and were an inspiration for Chaplin…

MOB: Absolutely beautiful photographs!

DM: Stunning! Think what it must have been like schlepping those things up across the Chilkoot Pass and having a dark room within a little boat that was sailing down the Yukon river. He was an absolute madman. And he was leaving glass plate negatives in his wake wherever he went. ‘Course his marriage suffered terribly, as it would.

MOB: What do think the importance of these archive finds are?

DM: Film basically represents the 20th century. I think it will represent the 21st century less and less, except in the hands of a very privileged few. Film as celluloid was pretty neatly tied to the 20th century in our recollection of it. So, I think, as we move further and further on into the future, we’ll really think of the two things synonymously, celluloid and the 20th century. So I think its first and primary importance is in retaining our memory of that tragic, murderous century. That’s the importance of the archive. The thing about celluloid – when I say celluloid I don’t just mean nitrate, which is what celluloid it, but also acetate and polyester, that is to say motion picture film – is that it exists in the real world and so it can be preserved. Whereas we don’t know what is going to happen to any of our digital media. For all its fragility, this is the story of incredible perseverance and, as you say, incredible luck, dumb luck in some ways. Of course the people who preserved it were actually throwing it away and inadvertently putting it into a made to order preservation tank – there was no heat and no oxygen. It could be argued that most of the damage that we see in these films came from when they were exhumed into the bright light of the Yukon summer, with the change of temperature and humidity which was too much for them and they started to melt off their base. But their survival means we we do have an extraordinary record of what was in circulation then.

MOB: What is it that you have learnt from making this film?

BM: On the topic itself, I’ve learnt an extraordinary amount. I’ve also learnt about myself as an artist, that I can tell a story, maybe several stories at the same time. I had considered myself more of an image-based artist, but I found there was a way of combining this with a narrative thread or several narrative threads. And I in some ways I understood the 20th century better, and how the roots of who we are today are in some way buried there.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME recently showed to a full house at Screen St Ives in Cambridgeshire. The next stop is Cample Line in south-west Scotland 󠁧󠁢on August 17th, when the film will screen as part of a weekend series “There’s Talk of Gold”.

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